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Classic Horror Film Producer Val Lewton: 5 RKO films you should not miss

Updated on January 2, 2017
Val Lewton
Val Lewton

"He was given assignments which most contract producers would have filmed on the back lot and shrugged off as evil necessities, but he approached each assignment as a challenge. Forced to submit to exploitation titles, he was determined that the pictures hiding behind the horror titles should be films of good taste and high production quality."

-DeWitt Bodeen, More from Hollywood, 1977

Entertainment, Not Genius

In 1942, struggling, indebted RKO Pictures was amidst a shakeup to return to profitability. Orsen Welles, with high-budget bombs like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, had nearly sunk the studio.

With the realization that Universal Studios was making a mint on monster films, and with a renewed focus on "entertainment, not genius," RKO hired a young assistant producer away from David O. Selznick to head up the B-Unit Horror division at RKO. His name was Val Lewton.

Lewton was given a set of rules that had to be followed: he would be paid $250 a week. His movies would cost less than $150,000. They would each be less than 75 minutes long, and ideally play at the bottom half of a double feature. Finally, the titles of the films would be market-tested and given to him, then, it was up to him to make a film out of the title.

He would often collaborate with writer Dewitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur, shooting entire films in 18 days. He primarily used sets, props and consumes from other movies, to keep costs low.

Most importantly, he focused on quality stories and clever interpretations of the titles he was given. Seldom was the title truly what the picture was about.

Here are five of the producer's works worth watching, from worst to best:

5. I Walked with a Zombie

A low-budget art film with some incredible cinematography. Lewton did his research and hired consultants from the Caribbean to make sure that his details about voodoo were accurate and respectful. The sets seem to change place, so the audience is perpetually disoriented. Shadows on the wall.

There is no beauty here, only death and decay.

4. Cat People

A woman turning into a leopard when sexual passion is at hand is a metaphor forsexual repression at every level. Still, the scenes of suspense, both during a long walk at night and in a swimming pool, are the hallmarks of an excellent Lewton picture.

Cat People: The Swimming Pool

Simone Simon in "The Curse of the Cat People"
Simone Simon in "The Curse of the Cat People" | Source

3. Curse of the Cat People

RKO wanted to capitalize on the success of Cat People with a sequel. Lewton wanted to make a picture about childhood fears and imaginary friends. The result is a beautiful film with an unfortunate title the belies the story. The cast of the original returns, ostensibly playing the same roles as before, but the universe is quite different. Child psychologists love it.

Curse of the Cat People: Trailer

2. The Body Snatcher

The great, velvety-voiced Boris Karloff procures cadavers for a medical school by stealing bodies from graves. When the graves aren't enough, he is not above murder. The psychological back and forth between Karloff and Henry Daniell, who plays the head of the school, is quite good- a metaphor for class and educational difference, and inequalities of justice.

Karloff and Daniell spar in the Body Snatcher

Richard Dix and Ben Bard in "The Ghost Ship."
Richard Dix and Ben Bard in "The Ghost Ship." | Source

1. Ghost Ship

Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock. No, it's not about a haunted ship. It's about a captain haunted by growing older, who begins to confuse his duty to protect his crew with playing God and deciding their fates. Never has an inanimate swinging hook so terrifying... nor has the idea of having an appendectomy at sea.

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    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 14 months ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hi Curt Sembello! How's it going?

      Thank you for this piece. Its a great bit of cinema history. I love the genre black and white films myself.

      W.T.